Battlefield Earth: An Endless "War on Terror" Spinning Out of Control

By Tom GallagherDecember 8, 2013

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill


I INTENDED TO START this review by questioning whether Ambrose Bierce’s quip, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography,” still holds in the 21st century. If you can fire off a drone-based missile at a target on the other side of the world without ever leaving your hometown, who needs to know geography after all? But then I learned that apparently Bierce didn’t actually say it. Good question, anyhow, I think, even if it doesn’t come from The Devil’s Dictionary.

Does anyone think one American in 10 could name all of the countries we’ve bombed over the past decade? How about just the ones we’ve bombed this year? Dirty Wars shows you why geography shouldn’t join penmanship on the list of obsolete American school disciplines before you even read a single page — in the maps at the front of the book: the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Mogadishu, Somalia  — every one an American theater of war, no matter how few Americans realize it. For the next 500 pages, Scahill demonstrates how what we don’t know can hurt us — and hurt lots of other people we don’t know.

Scahill has also produced a film of the same title that has been “short-listed” for the 2014 documentary Oscar.  You’ll see and hear individuals from some of the book’s most striking episodes in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. Particularly compelling is an interview with "our man in Somalia," or rather one of "our men": Mohamed Afrah Qanyare, who is what the press generally call a “warlord,” now fighting “foreign fighters” under agreement with the US military. Qanyare turns a question from Scahill back to the journalist’s home country with the observation, "America knows war.  They are the war masters."  The average American, of course does not yet see this. Hence the film and the book.  

So far as mainstream American discussion goes, Scahill’s rational analysis of the “War on Terror” is pretty much verboten territory. If you wanted to pick a moment when the consensus of avoidance solidified, we might take the 2007 Republican presidential debate when Texas Congressman Ron Paul made the seemingly reasonable observation, “They [al Qaeda, et al] attack us because we've been over there; we've been bombing Iraq for 10 years.” Paul went on to note that “we're building an embassy in Iraq that's bigger than the Vatican. We're building 14 permanent bases. What would we say here if China was doing this in our country or in the Gulf of Mexico? We would be objecting.” His conclusion that, “We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us” proved to be entirely too much for rival presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani. The former New York City mayor righteously denounced the idea that our enemies might actually have reasons for their actions — and perhaps even employ some sort of logic — as tantamount to asserting “that we invited the attack.” Commentators quickly jumped to Giuliani’s side, and any assessment of the “enemy’s” thinking has pretty much been deemed beyond the pale ever since. When Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich attempted to bring a similar approach to the Democratic primaries he was accorded, if anything, even shorter shrift. 

Some people do keep trying, of course. On her recent White House visit, Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old Pakistani girl who survived a Taliban assassination attempt motivated by her advocacy of educating girls, told President Obama of her “concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism” and argued, “Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people.” Likewise the Yemeni writer and activist Farea al-Muslimi told the Senate Judiciary Committee: "What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant. There is now an intense anger against America." The White House scrubbed Yousafzai’s statement from its report of her visit, however, and al-Muslimi’s remarks have not produced any discernable response.

Of course, if you check press coverage or talk to people from other parts of the world, it starts to look like the self-destructiveness of our far-flung military operations may be obvious to just about everyone but us. Even former U.S. diplomats are starting to speak up: Nabeel Khoury, who served as Deputy Chief of Mission in Yemen from 2004-2007, recently wrote, “Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the U.S. generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) operative killed by drones.” Of course, his article was published in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs rather than, say, the Washington Post.

Stateside, our foreign and military policy consensus is reminiscent of the old Soviet Bloc, where certain ideas simply cannot be entertained in respectable discussion — obvious as they may be to anyone who takes the time to analyze the official line. The war effort is going great — we hear it all the time: We ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan and then Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We killed Osama bin Laden. We “take out terrorists” with drone strikes and “extraordinary renditions” all the time. And yet there is, somehow, no end in sight and we must be prepared to continue the fight on into the indefinite future.

Has anything ever made the national aversion to reflection on these matters clearer than the death of bin Laden, the presumed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks? Obviously the militarily sophisticated mission to kill him played quite well domestically — no doubt constituting a significant factor in Barack Obama’s reelection. But, if we were to ask just what type of achievement it actually is to assassinate someone known for his connection to a suicide mission, the answer may not be so clear. Suicide bombers expect to die for their actions, after all. We’re not the first nation to turn away from such questions, certainly — they’re rarely encouraged in the midst of war. But when the war becomes permanent, the cramped thinking that accompanies it also becomes permanent. So the fact that over time we find ourselves fighting the “terrorists” in more and more countries is seen as a measure of our success — we’re “taking the fight to them.” And the fact that we are fulfilling bin Laden’s vision of bringing the United States into a war with Islam along “a large scale front which it cannot control” is ignored.


At the risk of damning it with great praise, what makes Dirty Wars so hard to discuss is its breadth. Scahill covers so many aspects of what used to be called “The War on Terror” — until Washington retired the name and it just became the new normal — that the book has no one central subject. But the Joint Special Operations Command is as good a place to start as any. Formed as a result of the failed 1979 Iran hostage rescue attempt, JSOC held great appeal within the Donald Rumsfeld-era Defense Department where, Scahill writes, the CIA was considered “a bunch of pansies” (a situation since rectified — a former CIA case officer describes the agency as “a killing machine now.”)  What the DoD particularly appreciated was that JSOC is exempt from congressional oversight. (Also exempt from the ban on military involvement in domestic law enforcement, JSOC participated in the disastrous 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas.) Rumsfeld’s successors have loved it no less — Scahill’s sources tell him the Obama Administration has deployed JSOC teams in Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Yemen, Pakistan and the Philippines. (If the list surprises you because we are not at war with any of these countries, the point of this book is to let you know that you’re stuck in 20th century thinking.) 

Unlike outfits like the Green Berets, JSOC was not designed to “win hearts and minds.” In fact, one former Green Beret thinks JSOC operates “sort of like Murder Incorporated.” Former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith worries that current policy carried out by JSOC would “suggest that it’s acceptable behavior to assassinate people” and fears that “assassination as a norm of international conduct exposes American leaders and Americans overseas.” It’s not just leaders we place at increased risk. Scahill writes, “Using US Special Ops Forces for covert actions could mean they lose their Geneva Convention status, be accused of spying and ultimately be labeled ‘unlawful combatants.’” What would it mean for them to be classified as “unlawful combatants?” Think Guantanamo. Think of “enhanced interrogation procedures” — formerly known as “torture,” when applied to Americans.

Speaking of which, if there’s anything out of all this that still has the capacity to shock anyone, it might be the perversion of the program known as “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.” Originally designed to train American military personnel to resist the worst tortures conjured up by “a totalitarian evil nation with a complete disregard for human rights and the Geneva Convention” — as a documentary film, Torturing Democracy, put it — by July 2002, Scahill writes, “CIA interrogators began receiving training from SERE instructors and psychologists on extreme interrogation tactics” and the SERE handbook was used to “‘reverse engineer’ the program’s knowledge of enemy torture tactics for use against US detainees.” In the view of one career counterterrorist specialist, “Taking those [SERE methodologies] and inverting them and then taking them way past the safety margins ... completely breaks down the moral fiber of anyone who raises their hand in oath to support and defend the constitution of the United States.” 

A book called Dirty Wars will naturally have no shortage of nasty stories. One of the worst occurred on February 12, 2010, when US forces arrived in the Afghan village of Gardez, shot up a party celebrating the naming of the newborn son of an Afghan police officer and killed the father and six others, including two pregnant women. After a failed cover-up — during which family members reported seeing “U.S. soldiers digging the bullets out of the women’s bodies” in order to support a fabricated story that the women had been found already bound, gagged and executed when the Americans arrived — the U.S. military staged a very public meeting in which JSOC Commander Admiral William McRaven personally apologized for the atrocity to Hajii Sharabuddin, the head of the household. The story disappeared from the headlines and the war went on. Several months later, however, Scahill met with Sharabuddin who told him that “now we think the Americans themselves are terrorists.” You didn’t see that part on the nightly news.

Nor will you ever see much about our war in Yemen — or the opposition to it. Organizers estimate 50,000-70,000 Yemenis attended a December 2009 rally against an American drone bombing. Are those numbers accurate?  Hard to say. But one thing is for sure: the people there do know we’re bombing them, even if most of us don’t. As a tribal leader said after a U.S. bomb killed 40 people in his village, including 14 women and 21 children, “If they kill innocent children and call them al Qaeda, then we are all al Qaeda. If children are terrorists, then we are all terrorists.” So when another local leader notes that, “The U.S. sees al Qaeda as terrorism and we consider the drones terrorism,” the comparison might seem obvious — except back in the USA where assessments of the “enemy” that go beyond “They hate our freedom” are still largely shunned.

You’ll read even less about Somalia, where, according to the U.N. Working Group on Somalia’s estimate, “Government and pro-Government forces sell between one third and one half of their ammunition” — that the US provides — to non-Government forces on the black market. 

The central individual in Scahill’s book will not necessarily be an appealing figure to most readers. For one thing, Anwar al Awlaki believed in assassination — of blasphemers, in his case. But unlike, say, Donald Rumsfeld or Barack Obama, so far as anyone knows Awlaki was never responsible for actually killing anyone, or even trying. In fact, although the U.S. Treasury Department labeled him a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” he was never charged with a crime of any kind. And yet, by July of 2010, U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged “almost a dozen” drone strikes aimed at killing him. Dennis Kucinich filed a bill to specifically “prohibit the extrajudicial killing of United States citizens,” but only six House members co-sponsored and not a single Senator stepped forth. 

“We needed a court order to eavesdrop on” Awlaki, former Bush CIA director Michael Hayden noted, “but we didn’t need a court order to kill him. Isn’t that something?” All they need is an “evidentiary standard for actually killing people off” that former Defense Intelligence Agency Yemen analyst Joshua Foust calls “frighteningly low” — a level of evidence that “in a court of law ... only amounts to hearsay.”  Indeed, Scahill cites a federal judge expressing her frustration over an “Alice in Wonderland” ruling she felt compelled to make regarding “the thicket of laws and precedents that effectively allow the Executive Branch of our Government to proclaim as perfectly lawful certain actions that seem on their face incompatible with our Constitution and laws, while keeping the reasons for their conclusion a secret.”  (The U.S. military’s assassination campaign against Awlaki finally succeeded on September 30, 2011.) 


Maybe no one has better summed up the problem with current American foreign policy than the man in charge — President Barack Obama — when he remarked in relation to Hamas missile attacks on Israel that “there’s no country on Earth that would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Given that he recently told the United Nations that the United States is an “exceptional” nation, we might suppose that he thinks a country won’t mind if the missiles are American. But chances are that the man is actually not that obtuse and the drone/assassination policy has a more cynical calculation at its heart. His former director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, put it this way:

It is the politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no U.S. casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. [...] It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.

Recognizing his audience’s probable disdain for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of those who ushered in our permanent war era, Scahill leaves them with a pointed question about what has followed: whether

as individuals [...] we would support the same policies — the expansion of drone strikes, the empowerment of JSOC, the use of the State Secrets Privilege, the use of indefinite detention, the denial of habeas corpus rights, the targeting of U.S. citizens without charge or trial — if the commander in chief was not our candidate of choice.


Tom Gallagher is a writer and political activist currently living in San Francisco.

LARB Contributor

Tom Gallagher is a writer and activist living in San Francisco. He is the author of Sub: My Years Underground in America’s Schools and The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes On the Military Industrial Complex. He is a past member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.


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